Category Archives: Novella

Holy the Firm – Annie Dillard

I’ve been a fan of Annie Dillard forever. She turns woods walking into a profoundly mystical experience. And her prose–her prose hovers always at the edge of poetry. In this slim collection of three connected essays, it slips over the edge. Holy the Firm is purely poetic. Every word seems chosen from a depth of meditation like some bit of mineral from the ocean floor. Dillard uses words as she imagines them, not as we remember them. She makes language into music and ideas into fragments of sky. And she is as ruthlessly brutal as the wonders and horrors she describes.

In Holy the Firm, Dillard watches a moth stick itself into the molten wax of a candle, burst into flame, curl, shrivel, ash apart until it is only a slender husk, a vertical wick for the flame. She reads by its light for two hours.  The metaphor is apt for an artist–a writer–and stunning. And terrible. Her cat brings gifts of dead birds. She tosses the cat out the door and a bird over the porch rail for whatever fate of consummation awaits it. And she writes: “Into this world fell a plane…It fell easily; one wing snagged on a fir top; the metal fell down the air and smashed in the thin woods where cattle browse; the fuel exploded; and Julie Norwich seven years old burnt off her face.”

Now let your breath out. This is a child, not a moth, and this, too, happened at the edge of the Pacific Ocean where Dillard was holed up in a one-room house with a glass wall facing West. The weight of words is no different for a view of the mountains, a spider behind the toilet, a human tragedy of unimaginable agony.  The writer tries to make sense of it, tries for the numinous in all of it, supposes the ruined child will be gifted with a wisdom far beyond her years. Better she should have a face. But how do we comprehend the unapproachable? Where in the sea or sky is there space to contain the unforgivable, the inexplicable?

A moth becomes a wick that contains the flame. The bright hope of a child’s life flames out. There are islands hidden behind islands in the mist. Dillard believes in a god who has something to do with all of it. She accepts the hardness of rock, the vulnerability of frailty. And she must wait, at the water’s edge, at the place where the land ends, for the exact word, the never-before-used-in-exactly-this-way word, to fit the puzzle of her observations precisely within the frame of a skinny book, page by page.

Holy the Firm   Annie Dillard | Harper Colophon  1984

The Bird Is a Raven – Benjamin Lebert

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Ravens suffer from mixed press. They are known as death birds, secret keepers, portends of disaster, the familiars of witches. But they are also thought to have helped Noah to find dry land after the Flood, hold the key to powerful magic, bring sunlight to the dark and serve as a warning of danger. Benjamin Lebert’s The Bird Is a Raven hovers over the dark side.

On a sleeper train to Berlin, two young men spend all night talking and listening to tales of sexual frustration, painful loneliness, the angst of soured friendships. The talkative one describes a platonic ménage a trios that ventures into connection, rejection and physical danger. The other traveler listens but says little. His story is that he fell in love with a prostitute, who was not interested in love—or him. The train barrels on; the one story unfolds in exhaustive detail. An obsessive bond with an obese man and an anorexic is difficult and doomed. The other story lies hidden until the journey’s end. It cannot be shared in a sleeper on a train.

Lebert examines and re-examines the sorrow of isolation, the desperate compulsion to be seen and wanted, the frailties and failures of the human body and the broken places in the human spirit. It’s a very short book. The writing, translated from the German by Peter Constantine, is spare and evocative. The story is depressing. That’s basically it. Misfits on a train as stand-ins for humanity. I can appreciate the craft but I’m not a somewhat unbalanced, sex-fixated twenty-something, loser guy so I can’t relate. Benjamin Lebert has talent. His characters have big problems. End of story.

The Bird Is a Raven   Benjamin Lebert | Alfred A. Knopf   2005

Kitchen — Banana Yoshimoto

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Kitchen is the novella that made Banana Yoshimoto an overnight sensation in Japan in her twenties and eventually won her accolades internationally. It is a spare, lovely and quirky pair of stories about death and loss that turn extreme pain and depression to beauty and a kind of hopeful resignation. The characters in Kitchen speak in a dialogue that seems too direct and too perfectly crafted to be real conversation. But it works to carry the book along and reveal the inner life of Mikage, who has become an orphan overnight, Yuichi, who rescues her and Eriko, the transgender whirlwind who is Yuichi’s father/mother and Mikage’s salvation.

The unanticipated and the violent deaths in Kitchen and its companion story Moonlight Shadow engage the youthful protagonists in self-reflection and inspire a slightly detached chronicle of mundane activities and the ways they are colored by pain. Existential questions of profound loneliness are contemplated over meals, chance encounters and a restless mobility. Those in mourning change houses, take up running, escape on vacations, travel for work—everything is in motion around the emptiness of being left behind. Quietly, they discover new loves and insightful strangers who point the way forward. Trust in casual acquaintances and complete strangers is taken for granted in ways that are startling to contemplate—behavior that seems unremarkable to these Tokyo citizens might get you a nasty comeuppance and some lurid headlines in Manhattan.

But the prose is lucid and the calm examination of conduct in an effort to find meaning leads to awareness and acceptance. Yoshimoto’s characters are stoic and philosophical—maybe a legacy from the philosopher father she cites as an influence on her thinking. Truman Capote is another influence and that is easy to see. Capote strung details like exquisite beads on a wire to catch your eye and hold your attention. Yoshimoto mixes the rich flavors of a perfectly cooked katsudon, a deep-fried pork dish served over rice, with the comforting late-night hum of a refrigerator and hallucinogenic, clairvoyant dreams to concoct small, satisfying tales that treat death as a primer to teach us how—and why—to live.     

 Kitchen (A Black cat book)   Banana Yoshimoto   Washington SquarePress  1994